What university strategies and a psychology experiment from the 1940s have in common
Writing an effective strategy for local engagement is difficult.
Read through the following statements, taken from a UK university’s strategic plan, and see if anything looks familiar:
As a vibrant knowledge hub, we have an important role to play both locally and globally. The university is a large employer and economic contributor in the region.
We aim to build a clear and distinctive reputation for excellence through strategic engagement and communication with our regional, national and international communities.
We will help the region address its challenges and opportunities while incorporating its many possibilities in education and research.
Could this be from your university’s strategic plan or external engagement strategy? I actually lied at the start: these statements aren’t from a single university. They’re a jumbled mix of statements from five universities from across the UK nations, and from various mission groups. But if they look familiar this could be a problem.
A Barnum effect?
Speaking at recent events, I’ve asked the audience – mostly of higher education professionals – whether these statements about engagement could be from their strategic plan. Nearly everyone raises their hand.
This reminds me, perhaps a little uncharitably, of the Barnum effect. Emerging from a series of psychological experiments in the 1940s, the effect involves showing participants – for example, a class of students – an individual personality statement based on a handwriting sample or a piece of written work. Statements include:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
Because the assessment statements are so vague, people interpret their own meaning, and the statements become personal to them. Nearly all participants believed their assessment to be uncannily accurate.
There is a growing expectation for universities to be regionally engaged, and this follows from a recognition of the role universities can play in their area and with local communities. The interest and enthusiasm around the Civic University Commission is evidence of this.
This local role isn’t new. Many universities have had engagement as a core part of their mission since their founding. But in recent years government has focused on the role of cities and regions in devolved policymaking, as well as the institutions, such as universities, that can help steer this.
As regional plans – from City Deals to Local Industrial Strategies – shape the policy environment university planners need to factor the issue of place more highly. Often, however, the result is strangely place-neutral: a series of engagement strategies and university planning documents that are largely indistinguishable from one another.
Place, positioning and partnerships
There are positives to be drawn from my (admittedly unscientific) scan of university engagement strategies. Many recognise how the local and international activities of universities reinforce each other. Universities are bridges for their towns, cities and regions to reach the world, and this offer to connect the local and the global is made loud and clear.
In my work for the British Council on universities and cities working together on internationalisation, I found that effective planning was built on a deep understanding of place, positioning and partnerships. It is long-term, deliberate and part of a wider vision of the future of the local area. Universities often have a clear sense of their positioning, but articulating this in the context of place and partnerships can be tricky.
University strategies are not the place to detail individual activities and actions. But a greater degree of specificity is often needed, and this is likely to mean dropping some of the broad statements to focus on a few areas of institutional strength, perhaps joining up with other local universities.
Rooting strategies in place, positioning and partnerships is a good start. The Civic University Commission’s progress report notes that measuring civic engagement is not widespread (but does highlight Cardiff University’s use of quantitative and qualitative analysis). Further work on this is also important.
So too is taking a longer-term perspective. Many universities proudly promote their anchor presence in their area, but their plans are often on five or ten-year cycles. The city of Amsterdam has a 200-year strategy. Although this is prompted by climate change (as an official said, “we don’t want to just let the water flow and all have to move to Germany”), thinking about what a university strategy spanning one or two centuries may look like is perhaps a useful exercise.
A test when looking at your university engagement strategy: if you remove your institution’s name, and mix it up in a pot with other anonymised strategies, is it clear which strategy is yours?
Any social or cultural disconnect can have serious consequences for city planning
The Future Cities Catapult are hosting an interesting breakfast briefing next week on ‘inadvertent exclusion’ in smart cities. Here’s the pitch:
As more and more smart technologies are incorporated into the fabric of our cities, it has become increasingly pressing to ensure that those technologies reach the audiences they are intended to reach.
This presentation introduces the concept of ‘inadvertent exclusion’, where potential users or consumers of smart city technologies are found not to engage with the possibilities that those smart initiatives can offer. It is argued that this may be the result of a misunderstanding of the importance of social difference in the way that cities work.
These are important questions. They also remind me of two related pieces of work. The first is the notion of ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality. The book is full of examples of both deliberate and inadvertent boundaries:
In Baltimore… [urban geographer] David Harvey notes the paradox that, whilst African American women cross these boundaries daily to clean some of the world’s most famous hospitals (for example Johns Hopkins), they are unable to access health services when they are ill because of a lack of health insurance. Meanwhile “life expectancy in the immediate environs of these internationally renowned hospital facilities is among the lowest in the nation and comparable to many of the poorer countries of the world”.
The second is the 2013 book, The Blunders of our Governments. If you don’t have time to read the book, this review in the Guardian is helpful. It’s worth quoting in full this explanation of how many blunders arise from a disconnect born from ignorance or social and cultural divides:
The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it “cultural disconnect” – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day. The Tories had no inkling that, if sent a poll tax bill of several hundred pounds, some families, and particularly elderly couples, would not be able to pay. “Well, they could always sell a picture,” suggested Nicholas Ridley, the then environment secretary and the son of a viscount, apparently in all seriousness.
But Labour has become almost equally disconnected from real life, with its frontbenchers and advisers increasingly drawn from a cohort that went from school to university (usually Oxbridge) to Westminster thinktank without ever working in a retail store, a hamburger joint or a benefit office. Its tax credits scheme involved paying out weekly or monthly a sum that was determined annually.
Millions of people short of money, many of whom had never previously completed a tax return, had to fill out complex forms about their previous year’s earnings, estimate earnings for the following year and notify the authorities each time their circumstances changed. The scheme, as the head of the Inland Revenue admitted, went “spectacularly wrong”.
This month I begin a tour looking at the role of universities in smart cities in eight European countries, for an exciting research project commissioned by the British Council. One question I’ll be trying to answer is how universities may be able to help prevent blunders, exclusion and splintering in the development of smart cities. If you’re working on smart cities, please get in touch!
Looking beyond the financial benefits of university engagement
Over the past couple of months I’ve given several presentations on university engagement in cities (slides below from a workshop in South Africa). One of the things I like to test with the audience is a sliding scale I’ve developed1 of why universities choose to engage with local communities, businesses and other organisations:
1. Financial incentives 2. Government push through policy (e.g. for knowledge transfer) 3. Branding; demonstrating social relevance 4. Enlightened self interest 5. Public/local/civic duty; (rediscovering) a historic mission 6. A strategic ‘urban turn’
The theory is that, over time, many universities have moved from point one – choosing to engage locally because of perceived or actual financial benefits – to point five – a sense that engagement is part of the duty of the institution. The route is rarely a straightforward journey through all five, and in the messy reality of day-to-day engagement many stages will look remarkably similar.
Between financial incentives and civic duty we have universities responding to government policy pushes (point two), described well by the likes of Rhiannon Pugh and colleagues regarding initiatives such as Growth Hubs in the UK.
Point three – engagement as a means to improving an institution’s branding and demonstrating social relevance – is often a scrambled response to universities coming under fire (usually from the press) for being societally irrelevant or out of touch.
Enlightened self interest, point four, is the recognition that the fortunes of a university are often closely intertwined with the health of its locality.
Point five is having civic duty at the heart of the university mission. This is garnering a lot of attention in the UK through the likes of the UPP Civic University Commission but, for many universities, is aspirational at present.
Point six I’ve written about extensively on this blog. It combines points one to five, and proposes that the relationship between universities and cities is evolving. For some universities, the city has become a greater strategic concern and opportunity. There is evidence of universities slowly undertaking an ‘inward’ or local turn, from nation to city – for example university leaders prioritising city trade delegations over national ones – and institutions looking to take advantage of the globalisation of urbanisation and responding to the narrative over the ‘rise of cities’ and their interconnectedness. At the same time, universities themselves become vehicles for cities to achieve their goals – but I’ll save this for another post.
With many influences, who shouldn’t be held accountable for my findings. Much of this thinking was prompted by an article by van Schalkwyk & George de Lange (The engaged university and the specificity of place: The case of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in the journal Development Southern Africa) and their call for ‘the delegitimisation of one form of university-community engagement that values exchange with external communities for the financial benefit of the university (and is tenuously linked to the core functions of the university) and the institutionalisation of a form of university-community engagement that values place-specific development (while simultaneously strengthening teaching and research).’ A second nod to the work of Jean-Paul Addie at Georgia State University (and convener of the Cape Town workshop) whose research on rethinking the urban university has been particularly influential. ↩
Cities and universities each have pockets of internationalisation and collaboration that can be mapped. The result is a heat signature: unique for each pattern of universities and place.
Back in 2017 when I was presenting my work on internationalisation for the British Council at conferences I would ask the audience to picture in their minds a big map of a city they knew and to shade in red the areas where there was most international activity.
For most cities, the deeper shades of red would be in the centre of the city: the central business district, the tourist hotspots, the shopping streets and, often, a university (especially if it bears any resemblance to Hogwarts). There could also be ‘pockets’ of internationalisation in more marginalised areas where universities set up a summer school, ran public events, built student residences or held community engagement activities.
The thinking was that universities could help bring the benefits of internationalisation to these ‘cold spots’. I’ve been thinking about the concept of a heatmap of university-city interaction in more detail and sketch out some initial thoughts below.
What is hot?
Beyond international activity, there are many other interesting dimensions a heatmap could capture. A basic map may capture any initiative between universities and city hall, between universities and businesses, or between universities and communities or community organisations. Darker shading may represent scale of activity or depth of engagement or a longer history of working together.
Less tangibly, it could represent informal collaboration, or any activity where the university reinforces the goals of city hall or supports communities, or vice versa. Activity that undermines other actors might emit a chilling shade of blue; a warming red means partners working towards similar goals.
Heat could represent individuals participating in higher education or people otherwise engaging with a university – from attending a public lecture to using sports facilities. It could capture the flow of these people to and from their home or workplace and the university, showing how their engagement is shaping transport use and public spaces. Movement patterns will differ from university to university and each tell a unique story (Toronto’s universities are jointly studying the travel behaviour of 600,000 students).
Instead of mobility, the flow of money or investment in and out of universities could be measured. In doing so we would veer into the territory of university impact studies and input-output analysis. Given the limitations of such studies, a heatmap approach with added contextual data may offer a more complete picture of regional impact. A broader impact heatmap may look at perception data or a combination of economic, social and cultural measures.
A map could show ownership. Most obviously this could be the land and buildings owned by the universities (perhaps a more granular version of this data from the UK showing the dominance of the Oxford and Cambridge estates). In cities that have a degree of ‘ownership’ of institutions (through regulatory controls or funding mechanisms) the degree of autonomy could be mapped.
Or we could (try to) map where collaboration or engagement is less or more than expected. This mirrors nuanced higher education participation data produced in the UK (my post on that here) which maps the proportion of young people participating in higher education compared to that expected given GCSE-level attainment and ethnic profile. How we measure or define what is expected given the different make up of cities and universities is an interesting question, and leads us nicely to…
Heatmaps offer a nice visual representation of the heterogeneity and complexity of both universities and cities. ‘The city’ is made up of countless constituent parts, and it is similarly difficult to generalise ‘the university’ as a single actor. Even the most outward-looking university will have departments and teams with strong engagement with people outside the institution and others which remain mostly insulated from outside.
We can apply heatmapping to universities. Here’s the organogram for Hungary’s University of Physical Education (ranked highly in Google Image Search), with a completely fictitious heatmap applied that could apply to international or community or business engagement. You can get even more detailed: within each unit you could shade each individual. And university structures change over time, and in turn so does the heatmap shading. You could do a similar exercise across a map of the campus.
A unique heatmap signature
Every city and every university will have a unique heatmap ‘signature’. This is partly affected by the structure of the city itself: a heatmap for Paris would look very different to London or Dublin or Baltimore or Toronto. A long history of city planning, the decisions of millions of individuals and thousands of businesses and organisations, political and cultural and social and economic forces lends urban areas a unique fingerprint. In Paris social housing is concentrated in the banlieues or suburbs that form a ring around the centre of the city, whereas in London social housing is woven into the fabric of the city. The result can be intense spots next to each other, or softer scattered blobs.
Universities are actors that make decisions but simultaneously are themselves shaped by wider forces. Dublin City University is in a historically poorer part of the city whereas Trinity College Dublin is right in the centre, forging their own unique heatmap signatures. In Toronto the four main universities have very different footprints and very different heatmap signatures. In London, three universities that may be seen by some as institutionally similar are engaging in vast campus expansions in new areas of the city. The heat signatures for UCL, Imperial and Kings College London will show a new, emerging concentration of heat in their new campuses, a second centre of gravity which – depending on what you are measuring and the success of their developments – may over time have implications for their existing sites, the surrounding areas and all the bits in-between. London South Bank University is focusing on working with local partners such as further education colleges in the borough of Southwark; again, the signature for LSBU would look quite different to UCL. Precisely where you are located matters.
Heatmaps may also be a good way of visualising activity on the ‘periphery’ – a focus of recent academic inquiry from higher education to smart cities.
Is there a dark side to universities?
Not all university impact and engagement is positive. Complaints may be relatively trivial – from students taking over too many houses to making too much noise or not paying enough local taxes. But they can also be more serious criticisms: universities that exacerbate ‘existing cleavages of class and race’ in the race to redevelop and expand their campus, or otherwise reproduce wider inequalities in society. Such conversations often emerge when universities embark on urban regeneration projects – a prime candidate for heat mapping – and the debate often intersects with wider discussions of gentrification and community identity.
The Guardian explored some of these issues earlier this year in coverage of Johns Hopkins University’s ambitious development plans in east Baltimore. The piece quoted several locals:
“This is gentrification, a big institution pushing out a vulnerable community for its benefit,” says Lawrence Brown, a critical urbanist who teaches in the school of community health and policy at Morgan State, Baltimore’s historically black university… Marisela Gomez, a physician and activist in the fight for fair treatment of displaced residents, is blunter. “Every community that’s black and brown and low-income in Baltimore is at risk.”
There’s also an acceptance that the city needs the university. “We need Hopkins to succeed, because that’s the anchor institution in east Baltimore” says the leader of the ‘Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development’ group. And the university recognises the interdependence of the university and the city: “It is inconceivable that Hopkins would remain a pre-eminent institution in a city that continues to suffer decline”.
Needless to say, mapping such interactions needs to be supported by broad contextualisation. And ideally mapping would reflect some other, significant, changes taking place, such as a blurring of the edges around the campus:
With fences, skywalks and forbidding facades broken by loading docks, the medical campus sent hostile signals to its surroundings, and got hostility in return. Assault and theft were common; beggars set up at traffic lights. “Fundamentally it was a hunker-down strategy,” [Ron] Daniels [president of Johns Hopkins University] says. “The traditional thinking was that the best way to protect the university was to ensure that its perimeters were effectively controlled, and that you were creating safe zones within them.” … By contrast, the new office and lab buildings in the EBDI [East Baltimore Development Initiative] feel like they welcome – and want to generate – foot traffic. It is nothing fancy: ground floor retail, some steps and patios, small setbacks creating spaces to meet and gather.
There are other limitations. Maps can be stubbornly one-dimensional: they often show a fixed point in time, whereas patterns will change from day to night and times of the year. Unless they can show effectiveness or durability or inclusivity there is a risk of giving the illusion of successful engagement; some projects could create bold heat maps despite having largely negative effects.
With the development of ‘smart cities’ you can, in real time, transpose data onto the map. Although sensor information may show supposed engagement, the data is technical and the metrics unlikely to accurately reflect social realities. Maps need to capture phenomena such as ‘splintering urbanism’, whereby urban infrastructure can drive social and spatial inequality.
Lastly, consideration should be given to how to represent regional, national and international dimensions. To pick just one facet of international links, universities that are close to global flight hubs perform better in league tables, and cheap flights mean more research partnerships; similarly places with a direct flight to Silicon Valley raise more venture capital. But these links won’t benefit all people in the city or parts of the university and a heatmap could help us consider how benefits can be spread further.
If you want yet more reading, here’s a short article recently published by NCEE where I set out the long-term focus universities can bring to planning.
New article in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education
Urban universities are increasingly framing their internationalisation activity through the lens of their city. Two parallel narratives help explain this shift: (1) a renewed acceptance of the importance of the local environment for university success in attracting staff and students and (2) the growing influence of cities as international actors.
Read more in my short academic article published in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. I have 50 free copies available by clicking this link; after these are gone it will revert to a paywall (unless you have access through an academic institution).
In other news, the University of Toronto is launching a new ‘School of Cities’ that will ‘convene urban-focused researchers, educators, students, practitioners, and the general public to explore and address complex urban challenges’. This is particularly interesting in light of my research there last year, and the school joins a growing number of academic centres or institutes focused on global challenges and cities (three centres in the UK were recently established through the Global Challenges Research Fund – see this PDF). The Toronto school is modelled on LSE Cities (‘we don’t have that kind of thing in Toronto right now’).
The core industry of city states in a globalised world?
It’s always interesting to read about the role of universities in cities, especially when the university in question is the one where you are studying for a PhD on universities and cities. This time, it is the FT looking at UCL’s rapid expansion into east London following reports of academic unease over the institution’s plans.
There’s a quite a bit to unpick in the article, from universities as city brands (a big part of this work for the British Council), to the globalisation of higher education and the forces compelling relentless campus expansion within urban areas.
But the crux of the article is this:
UCL is not alone in seeking to expand to secure its place in the world’s premier league of universities. New York University, founded at about the same time, has opened a technology hub in Brooklyn, and Columbia is thrusting into West Harlem as part of a $6bn growth plan. It is hard to walk through cities without coming across construction sites for new college campuses.
With the conclusion that:
Perhaps a better way to regard urban institutions such as UCL is not as multiversities but “citiversities” — the core industry of city states in a globalised world. Attending them, for better and worse, is quite different from going to a little liberal arts college such as Oberlin in Ohio.
The notion of a ‘citiversity’ is a nice inversion of the ‘univercity’ popularised by the RSA. Have we been looking at the relationship the wrong way around – do universities help build cities, or do cities cultivate their universities? The answer is probably the slightly boring one – a bit of both (a case study in point here).
A few weeks ago I was honoured to chair a panel session in Lisbon on city strategies for talent attraction, bringing together speakers from Portugal, Italy and Germany. In my opening remarks I picked three traits of cities that successfully attract talent. Because all three rely on cooperation with universities, these are also the traits of the successful universities of the future:
Universities jointly collaborate with the city. Of course, this only applies where there are multiple universities. But where this is the case, institutions work together, speaking to the city with one voice, pooling resources and avoiding multiple bilateral conversations. For some great examples of this, see my recent report looking at how the universities in Toronto have produced joint research projects to benefit the city, have come together to bid for UNESCO City of Culture status, and much more.
They reach marginalised communities. Universities and cities work together to spread the benefits of internationalisation to communities that are geographically more distant or otherwise may feel ‘left behind’. My report for the British Council shows how Dublin, Glasgow, Hannover and Amsterdam are working to involve marginalised communities in internationalisation activities.
An entrepreneurial use of space. Successful urban universities, when forced (often through limited space) to think creatively when developing new buildings and inner-city spaces, blur the edges between the city and the university. By mixing the two and reimagining public spaces, planners can bring different groups of people together and allow new ideas to spread. Ryerson University, featured in the Toronto report, is a great example (more here). Birmingham City University’s expansion near Curzon Street station is another (more here).
The conference was organised by The Class of 2020, a Dutch think tank looking at student living. At the conference they launched their 2018 Annual Trends Report including an article by myself on what we can learn from computer games about university-city collaboration. Read it here.
For cities and regions to prosper, local leaders will need to unlock the superpowers of their universities
Earlier this year I visited Canada to speak to city and university leaders in Toronto and the nearby city of Waterloo. A report setting out what we can learn has just been published by KPMG in the UK and is available here.
Here’s an intro:
Universities are an undervalued force for development. With a presence in nearly every major town and city in the world, they should be at the centre of regional regeneration and international partnership building. But too often they are secondary partners, or used to fill subcommittee seats.
However, some universities are leading the way in city-building efforts. They are the city’s superpower – a force for long-term prosperity and local inclusivity. They recognise that if their city is failing, they too will fail. They recognise that a skilled and connected city is a successful city. They are proactive and pragmatic. They recognise their role within the city and the mutual benefit their engagement will bring. They understand how they can help solve societal challenges, and they understand that local engagement complements international relations.
Toronto’s universities demonstrate how to excel in individual initiatives, yet come together to benefit the city. This report shows how universities in and around Toronto are using five key superpowers to work with their city and strengthen it:
Universities are ‘anchor tenants’, investing in the future and inspiring confidence. They send a message to fellow city residents: we believe in the prosperity of this area.
Universities have long-term visions. Looking beyond the cycle of mayoral appointments and provincial elections, universities are a trusted partner for future planning.
Universities can be critical yet constructive, outspoken yet objective. They are machines for solving problems and generating ideas, home to highly-concentrated brainpower, and steeped in knowledge and evidence.
Universities educate and train the future workforce. They provide the skills to build the city.
Universities are a window to the world, framing local issues within international debates, and bringing global discoveries to the city.
City-building is powered by universities. The next phase of city-building will see greater autonomy and leadership of individual cities. The challenges cities face will grow in complexity and severity. Universities will need to bring their superpowers and play a role at multiple levels: from developments on campus, to city-wide links, to global relations.
Universities need to adapt to work effectively with their city. And as the burden of local and global challenges falls increasingly on cities, and as future prosperity continues to depend on training and retaining the most skilled individuals, city leaders will need to unlock the superpowers of their universities.
The full report is available on the KPMG website here.
Many ‘anchors’ – institutions that have a long-term, stabilising presence in a community, and coordinate economic and social activity – are established in an area because of the very characteristics of that area. Think hospitals needing to serve a growing population, or a university near colleges, industry and other intellectual activity. Yet a new breed of anchor institutions have arrived: born unrooted, they float high and unencumbered by place until they are enticed to a city by an offer they can’t refuse.
Two recent examples showcase this. First, Amazon is inviting metropolitan areas in the US to bid to host the company’s second headquarters. The prize?
Amazon will hire as many as fifty thousand (50,000) new full-time employees with an average annual total compensation exceeding one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) over the next ten to fifteen years, following commencement of operations. The Project is expected to have over $5 billion in capital expenditures.
Areas are expected to meet strict criteria, including a highly educated workforce and a ‘strong university system’. The Centre for Cities cover the ins and outs of Amazon’s invitation nicely, concluding that ‘firms like Amazon need cities as much as cities need firms like Amazon’. But it appears that Amazon have the upper hand.
Second, the UK’s vote for Brexit has effectively booted the European Medicines Agency (EMA) out of London. The EMA’s Canary Wharf headquarters is home to 890 staff and 36,000 annual visitors. EU countries have been bidding to host the EMA, who have also issued a set of criteria for interested parties. Yet, in this case, existing staff have been particularly influential. Reuters reports that
A staff survey last week found that between 19 and 94 percent of employees were likely to leave after the move, depending on which location was chosen. Picking Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna, Milan or Copenhagen as the new headquarters would be the best option for retaining staff, the survey found.
In both cases, the more connected, more open, more liveable cities with a skilled, educated population are in a far stronger position to attract a floating anchor institution. And as the most successful cities (and the principles of agglomeration) have shown, once you have one anchor it’s much easier to attract further anchors.
According to researchers studying 76 Spanish cities:
we find that good city reputation is positively associated with economic activities and negatively with unemployment, but not related to net migration.
With the exception of city reputation having little association with net migration, these findings aren’t particularly surprising; indeed, the article is perhaps more notable as a sign of the emerging focus on ‘city reputation’ as a field of study. Full article in Regional Studies available here.
Incidentally, I was in Seville last week at EAIE, Europe’s largest higher education conference, presenting research on cities, universities and internationalisation, including city marketing and branding activities. See a Times Higher Education piece briefly covering the session here (towards the end).
The Regional Studies authors propose several areas of future investigation, including the dynamics of human capital (‘city reputation may attract human capital, which in turn favours city performance’). They would do well to also consider the effect of university performance and reputation on the city.